LAS VEGAS — All is not lost with the Winnipeg Jets, despite a serious beatdown suffered Thursday night at the hands of the suddenly mighty Vegas Golden Knights.
The Jets were soundly outplayed in a 5-0 defeat to the Golden Knights, who totally look the part of a bona fide Stanley Cup contender.
Winnipeg missed a chance to officially lock up a playoff spot but will undoubtedly do so, possibly as early as Saturday when the Nashville Predators pay a visit. The Jets (44-26-4) have accumulated 92 points and occupy top spot in the Central Division, two points up on the Predators (42-27-6) with a game in hand.
The Preds’ visit marks the start of a four-game stretch at Bell MTS Place, the Jets’ final homestand of the 2018-19 season. The Dallas Stars, New York Islanders and Montreal Canadiens all hit town next week.
Here’s something to chew on: is a Monday night rendezvous between Winnipeg and Dallas simply an appetizer before a more elaborate main course? The way the NHL standings are shaping up, there’s a clear possibility they’ll meet in the opening round of the playoffs — and that series could be a delicacy.
The table will be set in less than three weeks. Granted, the post-season guest list hasn’t been penned in indelible ink but that doesn’t preclude contemplating the Jets’ likely first-round opponent.
When the 82-game regular season ends April 6, head coach Paul Maurice’s squad will have either wrapped up top spot in the Central and set up a meeting with the first wild-card team (currently Dallas) in the Western Conference, or will have finished as the division runners-up and will meet the third-place team (currently the St. Louis Blues) in the Central.
Before doing some head-to-head analyses, there are a few things to remember about the Jets.
Bell MTS Place remains a hornet’s nest for the opposition. The Jets have one of the best home records (24-9-4) in the NHL, and only five teams have fewer losses in their own barn.
There’s nothing discreet about Winnipeg’s penchant for putting the puck in the net. The team is seventh in the league in goals for per game (3.36), boasts a 35-goal scorer in centre Mark Scheifele, a couple of youngsters, Patrik Laine and Kyle Connor, sitting on 29 goals, and a captain (Blake Wheeler) with 20. Winnipeg also has five others with at least a dozen goals.
Only three other teams allow more shots per game (33.4) than Winnipeg, and the Jets also give up more high-danger chances than they create. Yet, the team is still in the middle of the pack in terms of goals against per game (2.94). After a slow start, goalie Connor Hellebuyck’s stock has been on the rise since the Jets’ league-mandated week off in mid-January. His save percentage was .908 before that point, and is .915 since.
The power play continues to shine and is currently fourth in the NHL (25.5 per cent efficiency) but the penalty kill is a major problem area. Prior to the all-star game, the Jets were fourth in the league (81.2 per cent) but since then the kill has been running at 76.9 per cent, or 26th.
Two huge pieces to the overall puzzle are currently busted. The return of either Dustin Byfuglien (lower body) or Josh Morrissey (upper body) — or better still, both — on the blue line can’t come soon enough for the organization.
Jets win Central
Winnipeg hosts Dallas (38-30-6)
Regular-season series (Stars 2-1-0)
This one gets an edge as the most likely matchup given the state of the standings now and over the past few weeks. On Monday night, the Jets and visiting Stars meet for the last time this regular season.
Dallas has a four-point cushion on the Colorado Avalanche for the first wild-card spot in the West and just happens to be playing its finest hockey in some time, winning seven of its last 11.
There’s usually fireworks when these club collide, like Byfuglien stepping in to restore order when Dallas forward Jamie Benn tries to impose his will, or Stars centre Tyler Seguin picking corners and ripping rockets, as he tends to do with relative ease against the Jets.
Stars head coach Jim Montgomery has only recently reunited the top line of the Benn-Seguin-Alexander Radulov. When on, it’s a lethal trio. However, there’s not much offence up front after that, and the obvious shortage of scoring depth will be an issue. The Stars average only 2.51 goals per game and that ranks 29th in the NHL.
But the club is surprisingly good defensively. It’s in the middle of the pack in terms of shots allowed per game, allowing the eighth-fewest high-danger chances in the league. The Stars’ top goaltender, Ben Bishop, has been brilliant. His workload has been carefully managed, and he’s 25-15-2 in 43 appearances with a 2.05 GAA and .932 S%.
Dallas has a sound penalty kill (82.5, ninth) but is just 17th in the league on the power play (19.4).
This series could come down to the Jets’ ability to shut down, or at least limit, the explosive No. 1 forward unit. Do that and Winnipeg moves on to the second round, likely against Nashville — again.
Winnipeg finishes 2nd in Central
Jets host St. Louis Blues (39-27-8)
Regular-season series (Jets 3-1-0)
These clubs were well acquainted by early December but barely know each other now. The Jets racked up three straight victories against the Blues by Nov. 25 before getting blanked 1-0 Dec. 7 by goalie Jake Allen.
Remember when St. Louis missing the post-season was a foregone conclusion? Remember when head coach Mike Yeo was fired with the team at 7-9-3 and replaced on an interim basis by Craig Berube?
That was then, this is now. The Blues are 32-18-5 under Berube, bolstered significantly by an amazing franchise-record 11-game winning streak earlier in 2019.
This wasn’t a team known for its defensive prowess. However, St. Louis is currently limiting the shots against while ensuring the ones that do get through come from those low-grade areas. A solid blue-line corps includes veterans Alex Pietrangelo, Robert Bortuzzo and Colton Parayko and talented youngster Vince Dunn.
The Blues have given up the sixth-fewest goals against (202). Rookie netminder Jordan Binnington is playing a prominent role in the team’s dramatic turnaround. He has won 19 of 24 starts and has a 1.79 GAA and 929 S%.
Up front, Vladimir Tarasenko leads the way with 28 goals, while Ryan O’Reilly, a free agency acquisition last summer, has 26 goals and 69 points. St. Louis also has seven others with at least 10 goals.
Winnipeg would do well to steer clear of the surging Blues.
Other potential opponents
Indeed, additional scenarios do exist for the Jets in the opening round of the playoffs.
What if the Jets finish ahead of the pack in the Central but Dallas — with its 82 points — has a late-season meltdown? If that happens, any one of the Colorado Avalanche (78), Arizona Coyotes (78) or Minnesota Wild (77) that goes on a hot streak could grab that first wild-card spot.
What if the Jets drop to second in the Central and the Blues (86) falter? Well, the Stars have the only real chance of overtaking St. Louis, so that just sets up a Dallas-Winnipeg matchup.
Assistant sports editor
Jason Bell wanted to be a lawyer when he was a kid. The movie The Paper Chase got him hooked on the idea of law school and, possibly, falling in love with someone exactly like Lindsay Wagner (before she went all bionic).